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Editorial: Tougher laws needed to deal with DWI carnage

It’s been said many times, but with each life taken by a drunken driver it bears repeating: New Mexico must remove from the state’s roadways those people who choose to drive while impaired – especially those who do it over and over.

Early Saturday morning, 19-year-old Jacob Salazar was driving home after visiting his girlfriend. Police say a truck driven by Roberto Lucero crossed the median in Southwest Albuquerque and struck Salazar’s Ford Mustang head-on. Salazar’s bright future ended when Lucero’s truck rammed into his car.

Salazar hadn’t been drinking, but police suspect Lucero, who survived the crash, had been.

Salazar had graduated last year from Rio Grande High School, where he was the class salutatorian, starting quarterback for the varsity football team and a member of the golf team. He had just finished his first semester at the University of New Mexico.

Lucero was on parole over numerous probation violations stemming from several cases involving burglary and other crimes. Even though he had taken a repeat offender plea, he was not given an enhanced sentence. He also had a 2004 DWI, but that case was dismissed.

This crash is only the most recent episode of carnage on local highways.

In late November, Jacob Jaramillo, who police described as “extremely intoxicated,” ran a red light and crashed into a vehicle on a frontage road near the Big I, killing brothers Roberto Mendez, 27, and Sergio Mendez-Aguirre, 23, and Mendez’s girlfriend, Grace Sinfield, 20. Sinfield’s father is the head of Sandia Prep and she and Mendez had worked at High Finance restaurant. Mendez-Aguirre had just graduated from UNM with a degree in chemistry.

This wasn’t Jaramillo’s first run-in with the law. He’s had plenty. And his legal history included a 2014 DWI charge that was dismissed because prosecutors failed to make court deadlines.

He also survived the crash, and the results of his blood alcohol taken at the hospital after the crash were released last week.

Guess what? Jaramillo’s blood alcohol tested at 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit of .08.

His mother, in an example of twisted maternal logic, insists the deaths were an “accident” because when her son drove drunk in the past, he always went too slow, not too fast.

In September on Interstate 25, just north of where the three young adults were killed, Angel Romero was going the wrong way on I-25 at 100 mph. He struck Nicalette Baca’s vehicle, killing her and taking his own life. The autopsy report said Romero’s blood alcohol was between 0.17 and 0.19.

The past six months have been especially deadly for DWI crashes in the Albuquerque area – with at least nine fatalities since July.

Next week the Legislature convenes, and tougher DWI laws are on the agenda. The governor wants longer sentences for repeat offenders. Several bills are in the hopper to do that or to include DWI felonies in New Mexico’s habitual offender law.

Some lawmakers claim the state’s DWI laws are tough already, but next to Arizona’s, where a first-time DWI will get you mandatory jail time, they are a cakewalk – if laws and penalties are intended to be a deterrent to dangerous, antisocial behavior. These tragedies keep coming at a regular pace.

WalletHub, a consumer-based personal finance website, pegs New Mexico at 49th (a familiar ranking) for the laxity of its criminal penalties for DWI.

To say New Mexico does not need stiffer DWI laws is to ignore reality. Too many people drive drunk here. Too many innocent victims die.

It’s past time for a change.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.